Apr 10

My Year Without Film: It Takes Two To Make A Film Be Right

Do You See6 comments • 435 views

(It takes three to be banished from my sight)

So why haven’t I seen any films this year*? Beyond the FilmX reason, I blame James Cameron. Perhaps it is a bit of an over-reaction to boycott ALL films because the self styled King Of The World finally deigned to make a film after ten years, but what a film. Avatar, and its rubbish font, has been so all encompassing that someone has to take a stand. And don’t scoff, I didn’t see Titanic in the cinema, and he didn’t make a film for ages. So me boycotting Avatar has form.

What I am boycotting is not so much the blue anthropomorphic noble savage bobbins of the extravagantly long movie. I am not even boycotting Sam Worthington not being digitally edited out of the film, even though it was clear from Terminator Salvation that he was as wooden at Harrison Ford’s pre-movie career material of choice. I would probably be pro an original science fiction movie attempting to intelligently use cinema to raise some interesting points about human nature, and apparently Avatar is not that. But I could just let it go and watch the other films coming out this year. So why boycott all films because of Avatar?

3D. I’ve had mild rants about 3D before, and my reasons may be clearer than most. I do not see in 3D in day to day life, I have monoscopic vision and I am used to a world where judgement and perspective is more than enough to give the my world depth. Perhaps this is why I like cinema so much, it looks like my world. And Jeffry Katzenberger in eulogising 3D accepted that it might actually give a headache to a small group of people who have exactly my ocular issue. But until Avatar 3D was a sideshow attraction. It was for kids films and horror movies. It wasn’t for serious adult films and it cost a bit too much for the big blockbusters. Now its still not for serious adult films, but all the blockbusters will be post-converting and every studio is taking 3D seriously. And it will be the albatross of the age. (We are already getting reviews of the new Clash Of The Titans with a couple of lines about how poor the 3D version is in comparison to the 2D.)

Its all about the “3D immersive experience”, for which read it’ll make you feel a bit sick, give you a headache and distract you exactly when it should be entertaining you. 3D creates a real issue about viewpoint, and the position of the viewer. It actively tricking your senses that there is some blurring line between where the cinema ends and the onscreen world begins. We know this is not true, we know that when those spears are thrown at the audience they are not real. And yet out brain is fooled into reacting due to the visceral reaction. 3D plays with our instincts, with the primitive brain, with fight or flight. I don’t really want my gut to be whipping up the endorphins I want to keep in reserve for when I am actually being mugged in piss alley outside the Holloway Odeon. I want there to be a definite dividing line between me and the story, because the story needs me to be separate from it to work. If you aren’t separate from the story, it is part of your life. A lot is said about suspension of disbelief in the discussion of fiction, but I want that to be an active judgement, not one that my forebrain is battling with my rational brain for.

Now I don’t have any problems with the idea of interactive fiction, from role playing, tabletop or computer or bedroom. Or indeed just acting, or improv. But it strikes me that the participant in those kinds of fiction are able to to make choices about how much they believe, participate and play along with the scenario. A role playing game falls down if the response to “you are in a dark dungeon where three goblins are eating some chicken” is “NO I’M NOT”. But surely this is what is happening constantly in your brain when watching Avatar. If successful your brain will be tricked into believing in the reality of Pandorum, to the extent that you need to constantly remind yourself that you are not.

So I will be registering my protest by staying at home, watching the odd DVD, where I know the walls of my flat surround me to remind me that it is all just on a screen. Or if I need the visceral thrill of an extra dimension, wave a table lamp in front of my face in good old fashioned Dial M For Murder fashion. Or at least until the 3D conversion process goes back to do a few black and white films. If only the re-release of Psycho was in 3D. (Or indeed Gus Van Sant’s remake.)

*Clearly I have seen plenty of DVD’s. Only yesterday I watched Stormriders, an Andy Lau fantasy martial arts film with the cheesiest computer effects ever. For all its flaws, it really does show up the opportunities that computer effects brought these kind of wuxia fantasies which are now so seemless that it is taken for granted. In particular the proud credit sequence where all the green screen was laid bare, I can’t think of the last time I saw a film that contained its own “making of” (gag reels and injury tracks aren’t really the same thing).


  1. 1
    swanstep on 3 Apr 2010 #

    You raise the question: Why boycott *all* films (i.e., even normal 2D ones) because of Avatar?

    You answer: Because you don’t like 3D.

    You then say a lot about exactly why don’t you like 3D: You have monoscopic vision hence 3D may give you headaches. You don’t like the idea of immersiveness or 3D’s ambition to play with our instincts, with the primitive brain, etc.. You like all suspension of disbelief to be as completely voluntary and active on your part (rather than something that’s *done* to you and over which you have relatively little control) as it is with reading fiction, etc. so that you are always separate from the story, the role-playing game, and so on.

    Well! I have several levels of response. First, prima facie, your reasoning is bizarre. Your answer *doesn’t* address your question, doesn’t explain your broader boycott of all films (and going into the detail of your narrow hate doen’t and can’t help). Compare with someone who offers to explain why they’re boycotting *all* football games (not just all Liverpool games) by repeating that they hate Liverpool and then listing all the reasons for/dimensions of that narrow/specific hatred. The right reply in that case is surely is ‘Yes, but seriously, what’s your beef with the rest of football?’ Similarly then in the film case. Note that if you *had* answered your own question properly then we’d have some insight into why you aren’t *keen* to support/’vote with your feet in favor of’ the latest 2D stuff. As it is, why you don’t do that/feel like that is left utterly mysterious.

    Second, your ‘anti-immersiveness’ line of reasoning is bizarre. Film generally, i.e. whether 2D or 3D, is an incredibly powerful, and yes immersive medium. Films can and do make people scream, shriek, cower, duck, jump, and so on. Pulp Fiction was a huge hit and trangressed boundaries for many members of the broad audience it attracted. Lots of people had to walk out, others, including my g/friend at the time *fainted* in it (I had to drag/carry her out). Psycho famously caused walk outs and vomiting in the aisles (even by some critics!) back in 1960. Intense films from Cronenberg and Aronofsky have definitely provoked a flight response in me, and in one instance (with Requiem) I thought I was going to have an aneurysm! The simple fact is that film of any sort can overwhelm you/fry your circuits in a way that no novel or play can. (if you are 3 or 4 years old, *every* film does – my niece thinks Mr Fox lives in the cinema where she recently saw her first film) One of Pauline Kael’s most famous books is called _I lost it at the Movies_ because she liked movies to ravish her, to be physically irresistible, to blow her away. She may have been a bit of a weirdo in so emphasizing and valorising this aspect of films, but surely she was on to something!

    Third, *now* we have an implicit story about why you’re really boycotting all films: you’ve decided at bottom you’re not a film person. If you always only want not-especially-immersive, not especially self-obliterating, pauseable/controllable small-screen experiences then film in the fullest sense of the term is dead to you. your anti-3D line is just a fig-leaf covering what’s really going on for you, at least if we take you at your own word.

    Fourth, on Avatar in particular: its 3D is great and *is* really immersive, but in many ways it’s visually very traditional and a lovely relief from the ‘shakey cam’/Bourne-style fast-framing and -editing style that’s to a great degree taken over movies since, say, Private Ryan. Most shots in Avatar are quite long and many are self-consciously designed to be iconic, just like shots in Star Wars, Searchers, Lawrence of Arabia were. From the perspective of Avatar, a lot of shakey-cam stuff in fact looks like a somewhat artificial attempt to create the immersiveness that stereoscopic vision gets you for free, i.e., without all the unnatural shaking and cutting. It’s a commonplace in math that you can often prove results much more smoothly by extending the underlying domain – it can be hard as hell to prove something over the rationals but easy to prove the same thing over the reals or in the complex plane (and then derive the originally wanted result as a sub-case of the more general result). The same thing is true in film: before the development of variable-focus/zoom-lenses in the late ’20s you moved the camera if you wanted to zoom in. With those lenses, a lot of artificial camera movement disappeared, and people could start to think about what they *really* want to achieve by moving the camera. I suspect that 20 years from now Avatar’s use of 3D cameras is going to be seen to have initiated a similar rationalizing of film-making that had otherwise become over-wrought and ugly in many hands. Ultimately it should be liberating, but we’ll see. But insofar as I understand your worries about 3D, I suspect that they could be misplaced. Perhaps thinking about zoom-lenses will help you see this. Thinking through curmudgeonly objections to theatres that don’t bother with a proscenium might help too I suspect.

  2. 2
    fadedglamourblog on 3 Apr 2010 #

    A lot of text all round! I’m not a big fan of Avatar but I find it quite ridiculous that anyone would boycott all films because of 3D – there are around 20 3D films scheduled for release this year compared to hundreds of 2D films. I had to check that this wasn’t posted on April 1st.

    One thing I’ll pick out – you say that 3D is actively tricking our senses. Well, projecting 24 still images per second does funny things to our brains too…..

    – saamFG

  3. 3
    Mark on 4 Apr 2010 #

    Go on, admit it, you just thought it would make a good title for a series of posts…

  4. 4
    Pete on 4 Apr 2010 #

    That is exactly it, and to be fair I think its unlikely
    a) I will make it through a year
    b) I’ll ever go this long without seeing a film again!

    That said I have plenty of other reasons to boycott films this year, and most will be even more daft than the ones essayed above. But I want this to be a series both about film but mainly about my relationship with it over the last twenty years. But I’ll get to some of your objections Swanstep, because some of them are quite interesting. I think you are right that 3D clearly rewrites certain aspects of cinematic language, but will be used by people schooled in 2D in the near future, and there will be problems with that. Focal depth becomes a real issue along with framing. But will get back to you on this!

  5. 5
    swanstep on 5 Apr 2010 #

    @Pete, 4. I look forward to hearing what you have to say, and thanks for not taking my original comment, as it were, the wrong way. I was a tad concerned that I sounded a bit mean.

    Anyhow, modulo your monoscopic vision problems, I do hope you give Avatar a chance someday. To anyone who’s grown up watching Cameron’s pictures, it’s fun even just on the self-plagiarizing side: Av. steals shots wholesale from Aliens, True Lies, and Titanic… but, that turns out not to matter much: they’re still great shots, and the new contexts for them often clarifies what was good about the originals. E.g., Titanic’s ‘towering ship’s hull snaps and crashes down into the water’ shot becomes – spoiler – the crashing down of the mega-tree in Av.. That’s clarifying – why *does* the Titanic image resonate with us? Well, now we know: it’s at bottom a paleolithic, ‘timber’, tree-toppling image. I hadn’t figured that out before – maybe other people had – but watching Av. at that point I couldn’t help but nod and say ‘frickin’ genius’.

    I had a bit of noodle here about one science question vaguely related to Av. if you’re interested. Forbidden Planet images ahoy!

  6. 6
    Pete on 6 Apr 2010 #

    OK,and I’m back. First to say that this post was meant to be slightly ranty, and not a truly thought out manifesto. There will be other “My Year Without Film” pieces which will be a lot more about my response to my lifelong love of film, and so you should take it as a bit of snarky response. You will also come across a lot of even more flimsy excuses for the self imposed ban before long. You are of course right, boycotting all 2D films because of the slow encroachment of 3D is mental. Nevertheless I am narcissistic enough to think that Katzenberger is directly talking to me when he says a few people with monoscopic vision will be given headaches by 3D. I am not equating myself to a blind or partially sighted person in the cinema, but to actively make films I will have trouble watching seems like a kick in the teeth to such an avid film viewer.

    3D is a gimmick at the moment, and perhaps Avatar is the point that the gimmick sort of grew up, in as much as the director making the film spent a hell of a lot of time on the technology and in many cases thinking about the shots to create this immersive world. I suppose my question is “to what end?”. Perhaps a bit of a cruel question, one answer is to make money. Another is to try something new artistically which I have to admit must have worked to some extent (that’s the money thing). Not having seen it I can only comment second hand about the acting / storyline but do I expect when I watch it on DVD to not be wowed by that aspect. But to this idea of immersiveness. I have been swept up by cinema, I have laughed, I have cried, I have near vomited down myself (cheers Cronenberg). But most of this was due to some degree a willing suspension of disbelief, being drawn up by the storytelling in the cinematic. Sure there have been hideous horror moments (fish-hooks in the fanny movie the Isle was almost impossible to watch in places, but I didn’t really care about the characters so it didn’t matter). But if you can get that roller coaster visceral reaction with 3D, why bother with doing it with character, narrative, originality*.

    I don’t think 3D is going away in a rush, its had its hits and even when people realise that 3D films aren’t a priori better than 2D ones, it won’t matter cos most blockbusters will be in 3D so that choice may be removed. What worries me a touch is what happens when the money hitting the cinemas suddenly dries up when the returns for 3D are not quite so obvious. But again it bugs me that a genre of film I like (dumb action films) are going to be directed with an eye to the 3D. I am not saying we didn’t have “cooming at the screen” shots before, but we will get a hell of a lot more.

    So you derive from what I write about that I am not a film person. Not so, but one of the things I want to do this year is work out why I think I am a film person. In the end watching 700 films in the cinema in the last five years on my own dime is a bit weird. Maybe I am not a film person but definitely want to me one (getting an MA in film would also pander to this view). I am going to look closely into this in the next month or so, is there just something that appeals to me about being a “film buff”, and all the possible obnoxiousness that comes with it? Why can I not enjoy a film on DVD anywhere near as much as I do in the cinema. Why can I not enjoy television as much, when I know a lot of it is much better (and cheaper) than the films I see.

    Some of this may well be tied up with James Cameron. I remember the first great video I saw was Terminator. Aliens was the first pirate video I saw. And Terminator 2 was probably the first time I enjoyed being a contrarian about popular culture with my peers. I’ll see Avatar, and who knows I may love it. But how much more would I have liked it if the reviews had been “the 3d is spectacular which is matched by its script and acting”.

    I have thought a fair bit about the camera use, shot length and focal distances. I have been told that Cameron tries to do a focus pull int he film (ie camera moves while focus changes, giving the effect of camera moving in but the scene expanding – a De Palma fave). This won’t work in 3D, lots won’t work in 3D (shaky cam in particular – or it might but be too sickening). It is interesting how this may change the language of cinema, but possibly less than the advent of cheap DV cameras which potentially revolutionised film making for the masses. Whatever happened with that?

    Anyway, much of this for another time. I think I have deep down answered the serious point you make way above. I will go see films again, just not this year.

    *An obvious answer here is that it should be cheaper.

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